Nature Nut: A cold day was still good for bird-watching

March 11, 2019
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These two Hungarian partridges were the target birds on our subzero outing.

Throughout the years, one of the principles for living in Minnesota I have tried to follow is “if you wait for nice weather to enjoy being outside, you will be stymied most of the time.”

The reality is that we have more days than not when a lot of us say it is too hot, too cold, too windy, too humid, too rainy, or too snowy.

So, when I got a text from birding friends a week ago to see if I wanted to head out at 7 a.m. Sunday to look for birds, I said “sure,” even though the forecast was for record lows around 20 below. Our goal was to drive through the Whitewater Valley, which we often do. But, before going there directly, we would spend time just east of Rochester, between Viola and Eyota, driving county roads looking specifically for now-fairly rare Hungarian partridges, also called gray partridges, or “Huns.”

We spent almost an hour checking out many roadside birds, most of which were either horned larks or snow buntings, but no partridges. If you drive country roads this time of year, you may scare up dozens, sometimes hundreds, of larks and buntings ahead of you, as they are usually quite skittish. We probably saw a few hundred of each and even got close enough to some for fairly good pictures.

Then it was off to a spring-fed creek near Eyota before heading to Whitewater. We typically try to hit this country road spot when heading east as, more often than not, we will spot a few snipe in this tributary of the Whitewater going through a farmyard.

The snipe we have around here are called common snipe, long-billed birds that live in wetlands and other water areas, thus their liking to this site creek. But, while fairly common in spring, summer, and fall, according to my birding expert buddies it is very rare to see them around here this time of year.

Although the snow and vapor rising from the creek provided spectacular views, it made scanning the creek shoreline for snipe difficult. However, we eventually spotted two, maybe three, of what we thought were snipe about a hundred yards away. We got out a spotting scope to verify at least the two, which sat motionless tucked up against shoreline rocks. I couldn’t help but imagine what they have had to do the last three weeks to survive our extreme weather. This would be a question we would pose for many of the birds we would see throughout the day.

So, now it was on to Whitewater to see what might show up. We began at the visitor center to check out their feeders, and were treated to about 20 different species of birds, with the rarest being a couple red-breasted nuthatches, and four white-throated sparrows. We then headed into the valley, with our first good sighting being a rough-legged hawk nestled into a grove of trees. Later, we would see another, along with four bald eagles, but nothing too rare or unusual, except for one common merganser.

We were hoping for bluebirds, a kingfisher, a shrike, or maybe even an early great blue heron, but, only saw more common birds, including a group of at least 100 turkeys. We noted how this time last year we had encountered sandhill cranes in 50-degree weather, but wondered if this year they had yet even gotten to their usual stopover in the Platte River area of Nebraska.

Leaving Whitewater, we decided to go look for the partridges on the way back. Before getting to where they had been seen a couple days earlier, we did spot a belted kingfisher on a branch over a little stream. I pondered how it could dive for fish, get wet, and not have its feathers freeze up. And then, shortly after seeing the kingfisher, there they were, a group of 10 Hungarian partridges.

We got close enough to the “Huns” for some pictures, and talked about how there were not many of them around anymore. They apparently thrived quite well after introduction to the U.S. from Europe in the early 1900s but, unlike also-introduced pheasants, haven’t fared so well since, supposedly because of lack of small grain crops. Sounds like there may be more further west in North Dakota and Montana. Seems odd to me that a bird that is so uncommon is still hunted in Minnesota.

Anyway, get outside whenever you can, as there is a lot of nature to be seen, even during our extreme cold.